Is the next great breakthrough yet another hi-tech gizmo? Or is it how we view the human body? Nicola Silva takes on the board the latest revolutionary idea from Deepak Chopra.
"Happiness is the goal of all other goals," Dr Deepak Chopra tells his audience with subtle emphasis. As those six words sink in, I notice people in the Darling Harbour auditorium smiling, some rather wryly; a few heads nod in agreement. Have we all not, at some point in our lives, searched desperately for happiness or tried to win, woo or even buy it?
Children seem to intuitively know the secret of happiness, but somewhere along the road to adulthood it slips elusively away, only to return in fleeting moments.
We're more familiar with what makes us unhappy: debt, sickness, loss, past regrets, uncertainty about the future. Then there are what Dr Chopra calls existential dilemmas such as the fear of old age and, inevitably, death.
Dr Chopra is in Sydney presenting a seminar entitled, "Reinventing the body; resurrecting the soul". Wearing a conservative black suit, he is humble and humorous at the same time. When he speaks it is with clarity and a crisp sense of authority. By lunchtime, almost all his many books and CDs on sale have been eagerly snapped up. Clearly, there is a deep thirst for his message.
He has been called a poet and a visionary, but Dr Chopra is also a scientist, a physician and an undisputed spiritualist. Perhaps it takes someone with precisely those qualities, medical training and insight to present a radically different way of looking at our bodies, and indeed our entire reality.
Some years ago, scientists attached to the US School of Positive Psychology presented a happiness formula. The formula stated that happiness depends on three elements: a set point in the brain that's determined in childhood depending on whether those who surrounded you were naturally optimistic or more inclined to pessimism; living conditions; and thirdly, the voluntary choices and actions made every day.
According to this theory, 50 percent of happiness, Dr Chopra explains, is determined by the set point in the brain. Lottery winners initially enjoy the euphoria of their winnings, but then return to their set point within a year or two. The words "set point" sound scarily final; however, to my relief, Dr Chopra indicates that it can be changed through meditation, for instance, or certain types of therapy.
Living conditions account for only 10 percent of happiness. Is this why the feel-good factor of retail therapy is so short lived and has to be reinforced so often?
We all know that doing what we truly enjoy and making other people happy, whether by kind words or helping someone out in a time of need, brings us joy, too. This accounts for the remaining 40 percent in the formula: voluntarily choosing things that bring us fulfilment and pleasure. This is also where intention comes into play.
The curious thing about happiness is that happy people have different brain chemistry.
"A heart that is in love is very different to a heart that is hostile, structurally," Dr Chopra points out. He adds that the number one risk factor for sudden death is hostility.
A happy person makes their friends - and even the friends of their friends - happy. And here's the clincher, the happiness of the people can affect a country's GDP. I wonder if this is one reason why Australia seems to have weathered the so-called global financial crisis so well. Perhaps we are the happy country as well as the lucky country!
So what does happiness have to do with reinventing the body? Everything, really.
"You are intended to experience ecstasy just as much as any saint and when you do, your cells join in," Dr Chopra writes in his new book Reinventing the body; resurrecting the soul.
This is a truly different - and rather exciting - way to perceive the body.
For years, we have been encouraged to view the human body as a machine, albeit a magnificent one. As years go by, individual parts start wearing out, we sicken and weaken and our time on this good earth, generally speaking, depends on how well we look after ourselves. All in all, this is a fairly bleak outlook after the wondrous days of youth have passed. Religions that teach us to look to the afterlife for reward tend to reinforce the idea of the body's frailty.
Dr Chopra points out that our physical evolution ended around 200,000 years ago. In many parts of the world, particularly the wealthy West, medical discovery has contributed to better health and longevity, but this is merely tinkering at the edges when compared to what is possible.
Is now the time to radically reinvent the body? Is the human body truly ready for the next breakthrough?
Dr Chopra certainly thinks so and explores this idea in greater detail in his latest, quite challenging, work. "Once you stop clinging to the idea that your body is a thing, you realise what should have been obvious: your body is the junction between the invisible and visible worlds."
This outlook distils the human body, and indeed the entire universe, to the level of pure energy. In his wonderfully poetic way, Dr Chopra says, "The whole universe is an electromagnetic storm that goes on and off at the speed of light."
What's in the off? A group of scientists and sages have concluded that it has six elements. It's a field of infinite possibilities; everything is in harmony and synchronicity with everything else; it is a field of uncertainty; quantum leaps of creativity are possible here; the observer's intention holds sway and lastly; herein lies the soul.
Being neither scientist nor sage, I understand the level of energy as a place where healing and change can occur, both of which are urgently required on this planet.
This leads us to question which is stronger, matter or energy? Contrary to conventional theories, Dr Chopra claims there are strong indications that energy is more powerful than matter. He points to studies of people who live unusually long and healthy lives, which is attributed to their emotional resilience, not diet or genes or healthy habits.
Dr Chopra is really talking about a paradigm shift in the way we perceive the body. In the past, we were told that our genes determine everything about us: the colour of our eyes, our propensity for certain illnesses and even such things as baldness and obesity.
Biologists thought genes were fixed. Science has now discovered that genes only affect us if they're switched on. Identical twins born with the same set of genes will have a very different genetic profile in old age because of the unique choices each one has made.
Even the brain is not fixed. When a person thinks and acts differently to what has been the norm for them, actual changes are created in their brain. Equally intriguingly, the brain has no way of preserving old pathways once new ones have been created.
"How ironic," Dr Chopra comments, "that the two things that medicine thought were fixed, the brain and DNA, turn out to be the keys for reinventing the body!"
If our DNA can indeed be improved, where do we begin and how far can we take it? Can we release our bodies from the effects of time? How do we heal ourselves from illness?
It begins with a different picture of the body. Dr Chopra compares the body to "a river that never stays the same, it is a continuous stream merging hundreds of thousands of chemical changes at a cellular level". He tells us to imagine a whirlpool; it is water and also the movement of water, or to think of a flame; it is fire and also a flame.
When we begin to think of the body as an energetic process, instead of a fixed structure, it becomes evident how stress, or grief, can make someone physically sick.
Dr Chopra proposes that the clues to healing are also found here. "Dealing with your own energy is the most effortless way to heal yourself, because you're going directly to the source. When a distorted energy pattern returns to normal, the problem disappears," he writes in Reinventing the body.
This is an individual journey, which begins with self awareness and will most likely last a person's entire life. Dr Chopra simply presents his ideas as a map to a different possibility, warning us gently that the map is not the territory.
"If you want to change your body, a change in awareness must come first," he advises. "Between them, awareness and energy are the most powerful healers in existence."
Such daring ideas imply, of course, that over the years we have played a bigger role in inventing our bodies than we may feel comfortable about. Any perceived flaws are the result of choices made, consciously or unconsciously. By the same token, we also have the choice to change whatever we feel dissatisfied with. It may sound mysterious, even implausible, but there are numerous people who have achieved just that.
Dr Chopra urges us not to underestimate our potential, saying, "At the core of your being, you're a field of intention."
A sensible person will realise that not every whim and fancy will come to fruition. The secret lies in clarity of intent. Clear intent requires mastery of ourselves, as it's easy to be distracted by material rewards and impractical dreams.
You can't force clarity of intention, but you can search for it. It requires the patience of someone panning for gold, carefully sifting through confusion, passing notions and short-lived schemes till "a spark that refuses to be extinguished" emerges.
"Knowing exactly what you want to do," Dr Chopra explains, "is the spark that generates everything else, including the big ideas and the great rewards."
Perhaps NOVA readers, like me, will find the bigger picture most attractive. What would our world look like if individuals began intentionally reinventing their bodies at the energetic level? Would this increase personal happiness? Consider then the power of happy people to influence their communities, their economy. Would ripples of change spread across the world? It is a well known fact that when groups of people meditate together, the crime rate in that area goes down. What would this mean for world peace?
Such possibilities are exciting, but Dr Chopra has an even larger project in mind. It is the ultimate quest, restoring the bond between the body and the soul; returning to wholeness.
If our own happiness isn't enough reason to consider Dr Chopra's ideas, he offers an even greater motivation: "Your body is nothing less than a universe in motion. "Reinventing the body means changing the whole universe."